Major Breakthrough

A few days ago, I got in touch with someone who had family in the second battalion KSLI during the Second Battle of Ypres.  He turned out to be one of the most helpful contacts I’ve ever made!  He sent me some documents related to John’s life (more census forms, army records, pay stubs, etc.) and what they revealed to me has actually yielded a bumper crop of confirmations.

First, one thing that always bothered me is that a Yeovil historian I worked with had told me that John’s father died in 1891.  Not only did I remember living at home with immediate family in my earliest memories, but I also had no memory of the death of John’s father; I only remembered his mother’s death.  Naturally this glaring omission from my memory had always bothered me.

I now have proof in the form of army pay stubs and census records that William Harris, John’s father, was alive and living on Foley Street in Hereford until some time between 1915 and 1918.

I also have proof now, from a 1911 census record, that John went by “Jack,” but I don’t consider that a “major” confirmation because it’s a common nickname.  I think I like it better though; Jack Harris sounds like a Somerset lad through and through whereas John Harris sounds a bit stuffy.

The army pay stubs rendered another clue: nowhere on any of them is the beneficiary listed as one Margaret Harris.  The John Harris that married Margaret in Leominster in 1911 must have been a different John; I feel vindicated because I had no memory whatsoever of her.

Finally, the biggest and most exciting confirmation of all is that I did indeed travel to India.  While I didn’t remember being in the army before the war, I did have brief flashes of India that I’d always wondered about.  I had assumed that they were either suggestion or from the life before.

It turns out I enlisted in the KSLI in 1902, and stayed active until 1910 and in reserve until the early part of 1914.  Not only was I probably at Secunderabad, but it’s also possible that I traveled to Egypt on the way to India (via the Suez canal) and probably made port somewhere like Alexandria for a time.  This is rather fascinating because in my most recent published book, a character recalls his early career taking him to Egypt.  It also explains why I don’t have many memories of Hereford from that period!

However, the service records were not very auspicious, to say the least.  They attest to a bored soldier between wars who had plenty of time to get into trouble.  In eight years, I never made it past private and had good conduct badges revoked and pay docked on several occasions.

I now think that what happened in September 1914 was that I re-enlisted hoping to prove myself in a war; perhaps I felt that I had disappointed my father by not working my way up to NCO, and I wanted him to see me succeed while he was still alive.  I had missed out on the Boer War; India in the Edwardian era was pretty cushy (the word “Cushy” actually comes from Hindi).  The poster of Lord Kitchener may have reminded me of a father who was still alive but in ill health and spurred me on to try my fortunes in war.  Maybe it was a bad idea, but I think I understand my motives quite a lot better now.

The epitaph “He did his duty” means so much more now.  It’s a final footnote to a life spent trying to prove myself.

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